My sister is a speech therapist who works with people who have suffered a stroke. A stroke is what happens when the blood supply to your brain gets cut off, usually by a blood clot but sometimes after the bursting of a blood vessel.
By the way, the etymology of the word ‘stroke’ is completely unrelated to that thing you do to cats. It’s from the same root as ‘strike’: a blow delivered, such as the stroke played by a top order batsman to a half-paced delivery outside offstump. It’s use is metaphorical in the medical case.
Whatever the etymology, being struck by a stroke is not a good thing. The longer the blood supply is cut off, the more extensive the damage to brain cells, damage that can be long-lasting and even permanent.
Hence the international information campaign to improve public recognition of the signs of stroke:
And hence why victims of stroke sometimes need speech therapists like my sister to help them re-wire their damaged brain to cope with the loss of the cells that used to manage language and communication.
What has this got to do with values?
Not a lot, but also everything.
Treating someone who’s had a stroke isn’t like treating someone who’s got frostbite. I’m not one for body-mind dualism, but for most people our brains are a significant contributor to what makes us us. And the importance of correctly parsing and producing language is absolutely ru8gia;;AKL
At a stroke, a stroke can completely transform the person we thought we were. It’s a cataclysm—and an opportunity.
In the three months after a stroke, as the body madly tries to heal itself, the brain enters a period of heightened neuroplasticity. This is when speech therapists do the bulk of their work, which begins by exploring the patient’s values—those invisible through-lines of a human’s psychology and behaviour.
Philosophers, theologians and self-dev gurus are prominently conscious of their values. The rest of us tend to cruise through life with our values in the driving seat, blissfully unaware we’re a passenger until something forces us to take the wheel for a second.
Like when we have a stroke and a meddling psychologist asks us a bunch of damnfool questions in a desperate bid to figure out the kind of brain they’ve been tasked to put back together.
Enter my sister…
There are two ways to look at stroke recovery. It’s an opportunity to change the values you’ve always lived by because they’re not working for you. Or it’s an opportunity to hold onto your old values, as one solid anchor at a time when everything else in your life has been turned upside down.
So my sister starts her sessions with stroke survivors by exploring their values. It’s a deceptively simple task: read through a list of words like ‘courage’, ‘creativity’ and ‘curiosity’ and pick out the ones that resonate with you most.
I say deceptively simple because, as my sister explains, when your language and cognition have been banjaxed by a stroke and you have no understanding of abstract concepts like ‘courage’, picking words from a list is nigh on impossible. It’s the speech therapist’s job to help people communicate across the opening chasm.
But when they’re pinned down, these six words, these six values, give the survivor a foundation on which to build the rest of their post-stroke lives.
As my sister says:
You might not be able to feed yourself, climb the stairs or recognise your relatives after a stroke, but you can always live by your values.
If Janet decides that one of her values is generosity, then she can apply those values as easily to her post-stroke existence as she did before. Maybe she can’t work any more and can’t afford the big money gifts she used to dole out to friends and to charity—but generosity as a value is independent of wealth. It’s up to Janet to decide what generosity means for her now.
In this way, human beings can find meaning in any situation by foregrounding and following their values instead of focussing on the mental, physical and material capacity they might have lost.
This remains true even if the only value left to them is the ability to bear suffering with fortitude. If you’re dubious, see Viktor Frankl. And if you haven’t had a stroke recently, please don’t check out because…
As human societies the world over are wracked with The Virus, we’re showing all the signs of a metaphorical stroke. Bear with me.
We can’t do the same things as we could a year ago—we can’t even think the same thoughts. We’ve become estranged from society and alienated from the world. Our future horizon has shrunk unpredictably: tomorrow is another day, but only probably.
Doesn’t it feel, metaphorically speaking, like we’re stumbling around half paralysed, thinking through the sludge of a million dead brain cells? Not really, no. But also: yeah, a bit.
Without downplaying the complementary cataclysms of either stroke or global pandemic, I think there’s something in twisting my sister’s words to the scenario:
You might not be able to play touch rugby, find gainful employment or buy toilet paper during a global pandemic, but you can always live by your values.
FWIW: When I went through the Russ Harris values worksheet yesterday, I settled on no less than thirty-one values that were very important to me. It was sweaty work narrowing it down to six, but I ended up with adventure, creativity, curiosity, generosity, intimacy and—the one ring to rule them all—connection.
Only connect the prose and the passion, and both will be exalted, and human love will be seen at its height. Live in fragments no longer. Only connect, and the beast and the monk, robbed of the isolation that is life to either, will die.
E.M. Forster, Howard’s End (1910)
P.S.: Fund the NHS!